In many respects, the referendum on the European Union presented British voters with a choice over the past or the future. The “Leave” campaign summoned up images of a sovereign nation with more jobs, higher wages and better public services — a Britain as it supposedly was before becoming tangled in E.U. regulations and overrun by foreigners. In its messages, one could hear nostalgic echoes of the nation’s favorite anthem, “Jerusalem.”
On the other side, the “Remain” campaign ran a largely negative campaign, warning that British prosperity depended on close ties to an international trading system anchored in Europe — a palpable embrace of globalization and the cosmopolitan outlooks accompanying it. In keeping with this point, support for remaining in the E.U. was highest among young voters, with surveys showing 53 percent of those between the ages of 18 to 34 in favor of remaining, compared to 42 percent of those ages 35 to 54 and only 39 percent of those over the age of 55.
The victory of the Leave side, which won with 52 percent of the vote, can also be read as an example of the revolt against globalization and 40 years of monolithic neoliberal governance by mainstream parties on both sides of the political spectrum, a revolt also apparent in Europe and the United States.
Although British economic growth has been relatively good over the past 20 years, median incomes have not risen recently; and those who think they are losing from globalization are clearly willing to consider radical alternatives. Surveys taken just before the referendum show that more than half of professional and managerial workers, who have generally prospered in the context of the E.U., wanted Britain to remain in it, while barely a third of blue collar workers were so inclined.
Thus, the Leave side represents something of an unholy coalition. The referendum was sparked by demands from segments of the Conservative political elite for relief from the regulations of the E.U. in the name of national sovereignty. But focus groups organized for the vote revealed that most ordinary people had no idea what sovereignty actually means.
Instead, the issue dominating the vote was immigration, and the margin of victory for Leave came from traditional Labour voters worried that an influx of workers from Europe was depressing their wages or taking their jobs. That influx is real. While Britain had 66,000 immigrants from the E.U. in 2003, 270,000 came last year. However, it is notable that support for Brexit was strongest in areas with little immigration and weakest in London, a cosmopolitan city where nearly half the residents are foreign-born. To borrow an older terminology, this referendum pitted Britain’s most vibrant “boroughs” against its “shires.”
Of course, one of the many questions facing the country is how that contradictory coalition — one side of which wants deregulation, while the other wants jobs and better public services — will find representation in the British Parliament. British opinion is evidently polarized, not only over E.U. membership but about the economic way forward; and its current party system is not well-configured to represent these divisions in the electorate.
On one side, a “little England” camp comprising a large segment of the Conservative party and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is hostile to immigration and interested in deregulation. On the other side of the spectrum are the activists who elected Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party, skeptical about transnational arrangements and determined to rein in the excesses of British capitalism. Meanwhile, many of those who supported the Remain campaign are centrists, currently spread over segments of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic parties. As the poet has it, this is surely a context in which “the center cannot hold.”
Therefore, the referendum will usher in not only a protracted series of negotiations with the E.U., but an extended period of political turmoil in Britain. That has already begun with the resignation of David Cameron, who may well go down in history as Britain’s worst prime minister, especially if a new referendum on Scottish independence succeeds, following the demand of the Scottish National Party for one in the wake of a Scottish majority for remaining in the E.U. Prominent Labour figures are also calling for Corbyn’s resignation on the grounds that he offered halfhearted support to the Remain campaign — no doubt thinking a new leader of their own might fare better against a new Conservative leader.
In short, the June 23 referendum is not the end but the beginning of what will be a long and torturous story, in which the political divisions in Britain laid bare by this vote will rise to the surface again over issues of national identity and routes to prosperity. More than 50 years ago, Dean Acheson famously observed that “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” It would seem that quest is not yet over.
Peter A. Hall is Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard University and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics.